Tim Stokely, founder and chief executive of OnlyFans, had his sights set on a career as a property surveyor before launching what has arguably become the hottest social media platform in the world.
“I think it was the growing popularity of the babe channels on TV,” the 37-year-old said of his decision a decade ago to branch out on his own into the world of glamour modelling.
Essex-born Stokely’s first three businesses — adult performance sites GlamGirls, and Customs4U, as well as a platform connecting people to tradesmen — never became as big as OnlyFans, the five-year-old start-up that during the pandemic lifted global subscriptions from 20m to 120m.
The platform where sex workers, celebrities and influencers charge fans for pictures, videos and customised content increased transactions 615 per cent to £1.7bn last year, making it one of the UK’s fastest-growing tech companies.
OnlyFans is rapidly becoming mainstream in the music and influencer industries, with rappers Cardi B and Bhad Bhabie uploading content and Madonna last month telling Instagram followers she was considering streaming a concert on the platform. But critics say the site compels more people to consider sex work.
Katrin Tiidenberg, a sociologist at Tallinn University who studies online sex culture, said the idea of sexy self-expression on the web has always provoked “this pearl-clutchy ‘think of the children’ kind of worry”. She argued that people have been posting and sending nudes long before OnlyFans, which she said was making it easier to monetise the content.
“All we talk about is the shift of the labour market, the future of work and creative labour,” Tiidenberg said. “Why is this not part of the conversation, when it is obviously there?”
Stokely played down the view that family-run business OnlyFans is first and foremost a platform for adult content, arguing that he had from the start pitched influencers from all industries to join.
“We’re really proud of how OnlyFans welcomes all content creators and has from day one,” he said, adding that it was the age limit of 18 that had made it a natural place for adult performers to gather.
The first creator on Stokely’s platform was Dannii Harwood, a glamour model who now manages the OnlyFans careers of nearly 270 clients, including adult performers, chefs, fitness bloggers and one clairvoyant. She is among the 300 creators that OnlyFans says have earned more than $1m through the platform.
Harwood counts herself as an old friend of Stokely, whom she describes as “tenacious”, having first met him in 2010 when the fledgling entrepreneur spotted her on the babe channels and suggested she join GlamGirls.
“He turned up in a Savile Row business suit, hair scraped back, with a briefcase and a copy of the Financial Times,” she said of their first meeting. “He wasn’t the usual type of person you would meet in that kind of industry.”
OnlyFans’ pre-tax profit expectations this year, up from £53m in 2020
She added the Stokelys were “not the kind of family you would associate with such a big billion-dollar business — they’re very humble and very very close”.
Stokely employs his father Guy, 77, a former Barclays investment banker who retired in 1998, as OnlyFans’ head of finance and his older brother Thomas as chief operating officer. If anything, the business makes for “interesting conversations at family dos”.
As with his previous ventures, he had approached his father with the idea of OnlyFans, asking him for a loan of £10,000.
“Having lent him money to start various other ventures I said ‘Tim, this is going to be the last one’,” Guy Stokely said, adding that he got his money back by the end of the year. OnlyFans, which takes a cut of subscriptions, is this year expecting pre-tax profits of more than £300m, up from £53m last year.
The business prides itself on not having raised any further capital, but would not disclose how much Leonid Radvinsky, an entrepreneur behind porn site MyFreeCams, paid in 2018 for a majority stake in OnlyFans’ parent company Fenix International Ltd.
“So Leo emailed in 2018 and we were really, really impressed with his thoughts and soon realised that we shared a similar vision for the platform,” the chief executive said about the partnership.
Being the youngest brother in the Stokely family, Tim said the company did not have “your conventional reporting to the CEO relationship”. He recalled being reprimanded by his chief financial officer when in 2016 he forecast that the following year, transactions would hit a record £400,000.
“My dad absolutely scolded me, he said ‘Tim, you always give me unrealistic forecasts and this is another one’.” OnlyFans’ transactions reached £2.4m in 2017, Stokely added.
Stokely is used to working from his Hertfordshire home, from where ran the business until 2018, but he is looking forward to meeting some of the celebrities that signed up to the site during the pandemic.
“I’m not pals with Beyoncé,” he said of the singer who helped OnlyFans gain global traction overnight when she mentioned the platform in a song. “I would love to be if that was possible, but sadly not at the moment.”
OnlyFans is growing particularly quickly in Latin America and continental Europe, and the question is how big it can become. “Whether it’s fitness, sports, fashion or gaming, we’re starting to see more and more different creative genres onboarding on to the platform,” Stokely said.
But he declined to speculate on whether OnlyFans could become the next Instagram. “My forecasting skills are normally not very accurate,” he offered.